Canucks, Seattle franchise’s shared identity breeds natural rivalry

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announces that the city of Seattle has been approved by the Board of Govenors as the latest expansion franchise.

VANCOUVER — From the Peace Arch Border Crossing at the southern edge of Metro Vancouver, it’s a 90-minute straight shot down Interstate-5 to Seattle. But ideologically, it’s closer than that.

There has always been a kind of kinship between the great cities of the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver, Seattle and Portland have more in common than simply the Pacific Ocean and its moderate marine climate, the Cascade Mountains and vast evergreen forests. There’s a shared identity, a vibe.

“We have a lot of common values,” Omar Mawjee, who moved to Seattle from Vancouver five years ago to run a company that specializes in sports business analytics, told Sportsnet as Seattle was awarded a National Hockey League expansion team on Tuesday. “Whether it’s Portland, Seattle or Vancouver, I think they’re all open-minded, vibrant, multi-cultural communities that have shared common values. I think we can relate to one another. The geography makes it easy.

“But I think a lot of it is the Pacific Northwest fan, I think we have a chip on our shoulder because whether it’s Seattle or Vancouver, we’re kind of like the sporting outpost and maybe the (national) media doesn’t give our teams the credit they deserve. I think that’s something that binds us and why fans here are so loud and proud.”

There are obvious political differences between the places, never more so than right now at the federal level during the Trump Presidency. And you probably won’t find many British Columbians eager to trade their citizenship — or their healthcare — to become American.

There is very much a Canadian pride, but so is there American pride on the other side of the 49th parallel. This regional nationalism adds to the Pacific Northwest spirit. And it’s what instantly makes Seattle’s new hockey team the Vancouver Canucks’ biggest rival.

“The Pacific Northwest is unique and different than anywhere else,” Canucks’ owner Francesco Aquilini told Sportsnet. “Having a true regional rival west of the Rockies will be great for fans on both sides of the border. Most rivalries are born from playoff battles or intense match-ups. With Seattle, the rivalry will be there from Day 1, which will make it exciting for our fans.”

Pacific Northwest fans will travel.

Thousands move between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland to watch Major League Soccer, the only professional league that encompasses all three cities. The Cascadia Cup, a Northwest competition within MLS, is coveted by supporters of the Whitecaps, Sounders and Timbers.

Mawjee, whose Eventcorp firm has done work for the Canucks, previously worked for the Seattle Seahawks as managing director of regional marketing. He focussed on Vancouver and B.C. and said between 5,000 and 8,000 fans travel from Canada for Seahawks home games.

The Toronto Blue Jays feel like they’re playing in Canada when they visit Seattle.

“Just this weekend at the Seahawks game, you could see a lot of Canuck hats and Blue Jays hats,” Mawjee said. “The anecdotal evidence is there if you look at border wait times before Seahawks’ games.”

The Vancouver-Seattle rivalry in soccer has existed since the 1970s and the old North American Soccer League.

“I would say it’s going to be a bigger rivalry in hockey,” Mawjee said. “People are already talking smack. I think the fans here, they look at Vegas and some fans have told me: ‘In Year 1, we’re going to have a more talented team than your beloved Canucks.’ The rivalry isn’t going to take long to fester.”

Canucks rivalries have been largely temporary since Vancouver entered the NHL in 1970.

The Buffalo Sabres were the Canucks’ expansion cousins, but Vancouver-Buffalo was more of a curiosity than a rivalry.

Visits to Vancouver by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens make for lively viewing. But the rivalry is lopsided, driven on the West Coast mostly by resentment. The Maple Leafs and Canadiens have enough to hate about each other without trifling too much over the Canucks, whom they see twice a year.

The Canucks have Western Canadian rivalries with the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, but those have been diminished in recent years by the teams taking turns being awful and, as with Leafs-Canadiens, the Albertans’ greater sporting dislike for one another.

Playoff match-ups have created rivalries at times between Vancouver and Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, even Minnesota. But those burned hot and briefly and all those other teams have better long-term dance partners than the Canucks.

And don’t even get us started on Boston-Vancouver. The Bruins were over that when they returned to the Stanley Cup Final two years after dusting the Canucks in 2011.

Seattle is different.

Seattle is permanent. Seattle is going to be a Vancouver rival forever. The games may not make the national television package on Hockey Day in Canada, but you can bet your last latte that fans of the Canucks will care more about playing Seattle than Ottawa.

Canucks corporate alumni are in charge of the Seattle franchise. Chief executive officer Tod Leiweke, before he became CEO of the Seawhawks and part-owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, was executive vice-president of Canucks in the late 1990s. Leiweke has hired former Canucks chief operating officer Victor de Bonis. Another former Canuck VP of sales, John Rizzardini, is part of the Seattle group.

These guys know the hockey business and they know the Pacific Northwest.

“Having lived out east in Boston for eight years, I just think culturally the West Coast is a little different,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning, whose off-season home is outside Portland, said. “Along the West Coast, hockey fans are smart and are good hockey fans and I think they’ll support NHL teams.

“Seattle is a good sports town. I think it’s going to be a fierce rivalry through the years. Our fans will have a team they can hate, and so will theirs.”

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